11 Oct India: A View of People
And Why It Matters
Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more.
What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.”
What is this about the “low level of society” and how can someone use a term like that without even being conscious of its implications? In fact, the very lack of self-consciousness suggests how deeply the notion might be embedded in the speaker’s personality.
At a time when Indians are protesting the racial and ethnic insults attributed to individuals in Australia and New Zealand, why isn’t this insult of its own people a matter of some concern?
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this does not count as an insult in India. But why not? In the 21st Century, we can talk in terms of lower levels of income or lower levels of education but can we talk of a “lower level” of society as a whole? After all, the Constitution grants every citizen the same political and civil rights. So, in what way is one part of society at a lower level than another?
I know Suresh Kalmadi does not mean it that way; I know what he means. But to be so unselfconscious of language in itself suggests an attitude that possibly sits at the root of many other problems. Language matters because language reflects thought and thought determines action.
This attitude is not limited to Kalmadi alone. In fact, it runs across much of society and that is what makes it an issue to be taken seriously in an India that is grappling with the conflict of old and new values. On this blog we have remarked on this attitude from time to time and here we collect some of the observations in one place to convey a sense of the prevalence of the attitude and the ways it shows up in various contexts.
In the post How Modern is Modern?, we had pointed to a similar usage cited in the work of the historian, Ramachandra Guha:
We can perhaps illustrate our unease by picking up on another comment from Guha’s book (page 736) where, with reference to the 2004 elections, Guha quotes the political analyst Yogendra Yadav as saying: “India is perhaps the only large democracy in the world today where the turnout of the lower orders is well above that of the most privileged groups.”
Lower orders? Without being able to put our finger on it, this formulation seems to represent a worldview that is profoundly un-modern and one that Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003) holds responsible for the limitations of Indian democracy.
It is easy to see how this worldview spills over into characterizations that set up the conditions for social conflict. In Democracy in India – 7, we had referred to the title of a journal article that discussed the reality of contemporary Indian life: ‘They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home. In this case the author is quite aware of the significance of language and the ‘they-us’ formulation is intended to highlight the same attitudinal issue that we are discussing here. The social implication follows directly – the fact that ‘they’ want to be like ‘us’ is a violation of the normal order of things.
In the post Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History, we had pushed this argument further and speculated that the same mindset would continue to give rise to future problems in India:
And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,
a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.
… here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens… I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.
None of these individuals meant ill and indeed Nehru’s intentions were very laudable. But there is in this unexamined mindset the kernel of the attitude that does not see all human beings as equal. It reflects an acceptance of inequality that can lead to actions governed either by benevolence or exploitation depending on the issues at stake. One could perhaps gainfully examine the attitude of various stakeholders towards the exploitation of minerals in tribal lands in this framework.
Where does this attitude come from? Clearly, it reflects the fact that India was forever an extremely hierarchical society and even as this reality is changing, social attitudes are lagging behind political and economic change. India’s visionary leaders were quite well aware of the contradiction. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:
In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
In the post More on the Modern South Asian – 1, we focused on the theoretical expression of this phenomenon:
In Provincializing Europe Dipesh Chakrabarty has defined the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’ as “the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise” noting, incidentally, that these cannot be thought of outside the context of the European Enlightenment. Chakrabarty refers to Ranajit Guha to say that South Asian political modernity “brings together two noncommensurable logics of power, both modern. One is the logic of the quasi-liberal legal and institutional frameworks that European rule introduced into the country… [Accompanying] is the logic of another set of relationships… that articulate hierarchy through practices of direct and explicit subordination of the less powerful by the more powerful.”
It is the conflict of these two logics, the logic of equality and the logic of hierarchy, that is still in play in India. Sixty years on, Dr. Ambedkar’s question remains the relevant one: How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? The message of this post is that we need to become conscious of our use of language if we are to resolve this contradiction in the way Dr. Ambedkar intended – in consonance with the values that embody the dignity and fundamental equality of human beings in the 21st Century.